Saints defense expects surprises vs. Brady, new-look Bucs
By BRETT MARTEL
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore suspects he and his defensive teammates are in for some surprises against Tom Brady and the new-look Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Normally, division rivals are relatively familiar with one another. But there is no game video showing how ex-Patriots star Brady, unretired tight end Rob Gronkowski and newly acquired running back Leonard Fournette fit into Bucs coach Bruce Arians' offensive system.
The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the preseason schedule and now comes the regular-season opener on Sunday, when the Saints will field the very first defense to test Tampa Bay's revamped attack.
"We just know it's Tom Brady," Lattimore said. "He's going to have something that we haven't seen from Tampa Bay.
"We've just got to be prepared and got to be ready for anything," Lattimore added. "We just don't know. We just go out there and play, and when we see it, we've got to play it well."
In recent years, the Saints defense approached a clash with the Bucs looking to limit Jameis Winston's ability to get the ball to receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, or tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
Evans, Godwin, Howard and Brate are all still with the Bucs, but their chemistry with Brady is bound to be different than with Winston, who is now a Saints reserve.
And it's not clear how much the Saints will see of Evans, who missed practice this week with a sore hamstring, or Brate, who is now a reserve behind Gronkowski.
Fournette, meanwhile, is not only a physical runner, but also gives Brady an option for short passes out of the backfield.
"He's a big, strong back that can really catch," Arians said. "He can do everything. He can protect, he's a big third-down back and he's been a solid guy in the league. It just gives us another weapon."
Fellow reserve running back LeSean McCoy provides yet another option in the short passing game - something Brady mixed in effectively while with New England.
"The more playmakers a team has, the harder it is to play against them," Saints linebacker Alez Anzalone said. "And what those guys have done in the past speaks for itself. We'll be ready, but they're great players."
Ronald Jones II is Tampa Bay's projected starting running back and Arians could throw in yet another new wrinkle if he believes rookie running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a third-round draft choice, is ready to contribute.
"We don't really know what to expect," Anzelone said. "There's some gray area. ... We just got to be ready to adjust on the go."
It doesn't help New Orleans that Brady likely will have the benefit of being heard at the line of scrimmage, which is not usually the case for visiting quarterbacks in the Superdome.
There will be no fans at this game. And while the NFL is allowing simulated crowd noise to be played through each stadium's sound system, it's capped at 70 decibels, which players say is considerably quieter than usual.
"The dome - it can't be recreated," Lattimore said. "It's not going to be nothing like it usually is, but that's something we can't control."
The Saints' defensive success could hinge on how well they keep Brady from getting comfortable in the pocket, but it's not clear whether New Orleans' pass rush will be at full strength. Defensive end Marcus Davenport missed practice on Wednesday with an elbow injury.
And then there's the fact that a lack of preseason games left fewer opportunities for defensive players across the league to work on a crucial aspect of the game - tackling.
"Realistically, we didn't get the same opportunities as a normal preseason to do that live tackling," Anzalone said. "Usually, Week 1 is when you do see a lot of missed tackles, regardless of preseason or not.
Making tackles - or not - "could be really key plays during the game," Anzalone said.
Another factor could be the newest member of New Orleans' secondary, veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was signed from Philadelphia in free agency in hopes he could provide leadership and help Saints pass defenders better recognize how opposing offenses are trying to attack them.
Jenkins was part of one rather high-profile success against Brady when the Eagles defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl. But that was three seasons ago with different teams.
NOTES: Saints rookie interior offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz, the club's first-round draft choice and projected starter at either guard or center, missed practice Wednesday with an ankle injury.
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Updated September 9, 2020